Mary E. Bradley Lane, 1889
I’ve not read a huge amount of 19th Century speculative fiction, but that which I have has always impressed me with the way the authors refused to dick about before getting on with the story.
Brought low by circumstance, I was set upon by ne’er-do-wells and cast adrift in a strange and wondrous land.
There’s an admirable economy to that. An economy you’d ideally wish stretched to the titles as well, but you can’t have everything. As in this instance, these books were often originally serialized in various periodicals before being released in a single volume; the soap operas of their time, where each short episode needed to grab the reader/viewer quickly and preferably end on a cliffhanger (or five).
Not here though, funnily enough. After the traditionally rapid scene-setting, there’s no real story to speak of, just an exploration of the eponymous utopia of Mizora. I know I complained about excessive worldbuilding pretty recently, but that’s really all there is to this. Somehow I didn’t find it as arduous as Hothouse, though. Maybe because it’s obviously so very much older it was easier to treat it as some sort of artifact, rather than expecting any sort of compelling narrative, and my expectations were adjusted accordingly.
The concept this particular world is built around is that there are no men. And of course, No Men = Utopia. To say it’s unfeasible and unrealistic is to miss the point, though it is both. It’s certainly very interesting as an early attempt to explore the creation and consequences of a post-scarcity society. It also manages to prefigure the role of war in hastening female equality (as well as predict Skype, oddly enough). Mizora undergoes a thinly disguised version of the American Civil War, and their version of Ulysees S. Grant screws things up so badly that the women step in to rule. They manage things so well that the men just kind of disappear, and then everything’s lovely.
The book consists of chapter after chapter of describing in overwrought detail just how lovely it is, with a somewhat odd fixation on fruit and compressed air. There’s a depressingly still relevant call for the universality of education and a preference for rehabilitation over retribution in prisons, and a surprisingly atheist sympathy towards the end, but largely everything’s just lovely because women are lovely and they can’t help but make everything lovely in that lovely way of theirs.
They’re also openly racist eugenicists but, once more, you can’t have everything.